The Next Wave: Can healthtech prepare Africa for another global health crisis?

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Data from the World Health Organization (WHO) shows that even though Africa carries 25% of the world’s disease burden, its share of global health expenditures is less than 1%. But it gets worse—the continent manufactures less than 2% of the medicine it markets and sells to healthcare facilities, hospitals, and pharmacies.

Africa will need to leverage innovation to establish a stronger health workforce and infrastructure, increase life expectancy—currently 64.5 years to surpass the global average of 73 years (for both sexes)—and achieve self-sustainability in the event of another global health crisis.

Why innovate healthcare

African healthcare sector struggles with multiple problems—paper and pen data storage, inadequate medical equipment and funding, inefficient drug supply chains, and last-mile health service delivery.

With patients constantly seeking access to an efficient healthcare system and investors seeking out the next growth engine in Africa; global consulting firm Mckinsey wrote that Africa might be “the only pharmaceutical market where genuinely high growth is still achievable. “ It is no wonder its healthcare industry is attracting global interest. I mean, why wouldn’t it? For instance, Africa’s healthcare sector will be worth an estimated $259 billion by 2030. There is a lucrative opportunity for the private sector to get a slice of the pie. Already about half of Africa’s health expenditure is funded by private sector entities and development partners.

In December last year, when only 3% of Nigerians had received full COVID-19 doses, the country destroyed a million doses of expired vaccines, partly due to erratic power supply, costly energy costs, and insecurity that made insurgency-ridden parts of the country inaccessible. A month after getting rid of a large portion of its vaccine supply, Nigeria secured the help of the private sector for ultra-cold storage facilities to store and distribute a new set of vaccines it was expecting.

After months of lobbying richer countries to share their vaccine supply, Africa eventually got vaccines delivered through The COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access Facility (COVAX), but about 2.8 million, or 0.5% of the COVID-19 vaccines received across Africa expired before they could be used. And while the short shelf life of these vaccines, which arrived on the continent 4 to 8 weeks to expiration, didn’t help; Africa’s struggling healthcare industry exacerbated the situation. A number of hospitals on the continent frequently experience ill-equipped storage facilities, staff shortage, unavailable funds and constant medical brain drain.

Recent insights from Salient Advisory reveal that 61 companies in sub-Saharan Africa are using technology to make distributing healthcare products more efficient—this figure is twice more than what Salient Advisory tracked in its 2019 report. What this means is that healthcare product distribution will get more efficient as the private sector or tech innovators could stop future vaccine wastage.

But health innovation is on the rise on the continent; Salient Advisory identified that 60% of the health tech startups operating in the continent today were founded in the last 5 years.

Perhaps, the biggest selling point of healthtech innovation in Africa is its ability to reach patients who are unable to access healthcare services in rural areas. This is a big deal for Africa because Africa is one of the least urbanized places in the world—with half of the people living in rural settlements, and the other half living in urban areas.

As far back as the mid-2000, when internet connectivity was very low on the continent, African health operators innovated around this constraint when they created Frontline SMS. Frontline SMS uses simple text message technology to allow patients to send images of blood samples taken with a basic camera phone to medical practitioners without having to go to the clinic. This would later become the forerunner of the booming telemedicine subsector in the African health ecosystem. Innovations like digital data management, big data analytics, telemedicine, and digital retailing will grow to solve the problem of Africa’s healthcare problems.

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